Better Connections: Arkansas Rebuilds its Plodding K-12 Network into a Robust Broadband Service

By July 2017 the project will connect the state’s 274 school districts and 600,000 students to the all-fiber Arkansas Public School Computer Network.

by / October 28, 2016
Arkansas CIO Mark Myers got his broadband marching orders from Gov. Asa Hutchinson on his first day on the job. Photo by David Kidd

Mark Myers remembers his very first day on the job in January 2015 as the state of Arkansas’ CIO and director of the Department of Information Systems (DIS). “I was with Gov. [Asa] Hutchinson in the mansion, and he said, ‘Hey, Mark, you have got to get this K-12 broadband thing fixed,’” he recalled.

Myers admits that at the time he knew very little about the Arkansas Public School Computer Network (APSCN), which provides connectivity to all of the state’s K-12 classrooms. He did some research and found that APSCN was averaging a pokey 5 kilobits per second (Kbps) per user. In contrast, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set a K-12 Internet access target of 100 Kbps per student.

He went back and studied some of the history. APSCN was created in the early 1990s as one of the first statewide education networks in the country just as the Internet was starting to take off. “It was pretty advanced at the time,” Myers said, “but as technology evolved, the state had not moved with the times.”

The access speeds the state was delivering did not match what people were used to at home or at other offices. Some school districts bought a second connection, referred to as direct Internet access (DIA), to supplement what the state was providing. That led to disparities in different parts of the state, with rural areas lagging behind, he said.

In 2014, the FCC made resources available to close the connectivity gap across the country by increasing its investment in K-12 broadband by $2.5 billion per year to a total of $3.9 billion annually. This should be sufficient funding to connect every public school classroom in America to high-speed broadband. With a goal of increasing the number of state school districts meeting the FCC Internet access target of 100 Kbps per student to 100 percent, Hutchinson directed DIS to upgrade APSCN to an all-fiber network.

Myers found that the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) had already started the process of procuring a network separately from DIS. “The folks who are the technical resources for these types of networks reside in my agency, so how the ADE was trying to procure it really didn’t match where the industry was,” Myers explained. “The industry is always changing. My folks who engage with the industry every day understand those changes as they are taking place. Something that might have worked three years ago won’t necessarily work today, because of how you have to develop a network and build it. Building a network is sometimes like building a plane while it is flying.”

It was basically a network architecture problem with three possible solutions: districts buying direct Internet access, a regional model or a statewide aggregation model, according to Myers. “The Department of Education was trying to use a regional model, but they wanted one provider for each region, and that is not how the lay of the telecom land is,” he said. The incumbent telecom providers’ service areas did not match up well with the K-12 regions.

After a statewide aggregation model was developed and a competitive bidding process took place, the state awarded contracts to 22 telecommunications providers in April 2015. By July 2017 the project will connect the state’s 274 school districts and 600,000 students to the all-fiber APSCN.

Schools will receive a minimum of 100 kilobits per second per user of E-rate-eligible broadband delivered over fiber-optic cable, funded by ADE, at no cost to districts. This will put Arkansas at the forefront of the nation in meeting federal Internet access targets, along with states such as Wyoming and Hawaii. Myers said that rather than costing the state, the investment will actually save money.

Arkansas’ all-fiber network will connect 600,000 students in 274 districts with speeds of at least 100 kilobits per second. Photo by David Kidd.

Between what the school districts were paying for direct Internet access and the $11 million per year the Education Department paid for the network, the state was spending more than $30 million per year for broadband connections, said Myers. “We were able to build this new network for $13 million,” he said. “So the state network is running 40 times faster now for just $2 million more.”

The fact that it didn’t require new funding from the Legislature helped speed the process. Work started in July 2015, and the statewide network upgrade is now approximately halfway completed.

Traditional phone and cable companies provide the transport, Myers said. But a partnership with Cisco on the infrastructure — the routers, switches and security — is key to the project’s success. “We looked at piecing it out to multiple vendors, but at the end of the day, Cisco gave us a price that beat everyone, and we are doing some things with Cisco that have not been done anywhere in the United States.”

For example, Arkansas is using the company’s secure Web gateway product called ScanSafe to kill viruses and zero-day vulnerabilities across the network. “I don’t think we have had a single school district where we haven’t found something that shouldn’t have been on the network,” he said. “One school district alone had three zero-day vulnerabilities on the network, as well as 1,000 infected machines.”

DIS engineers put some thought into future-proofing the network, so its speeds don’t become obsolete again. Myers said that by putting fiber in the ground to every school building in Arkansas, the network is only constrained by the equipment attached to it. “The equipment we bought does 200 kilobits per second per user today. However, it is sized to do a megabyte per second per user. Cisco has agreed that as things change, they would give us the same pricing on new products. They replace their product line regularly — a switch or router today is probably not what they are going to be selling 12 months from now. That is how we future-proofed it. Cisco said, ‘Since you are pioneering something, we are willing to put skin in the game and go along with you.’”

As with any project this large, there were some speed bumps and lessons learned along the way. “We didn’t spend enough time doing a proof of concept for some pieces of it,” Myers said. “There were small hiccups about how to transfer from an old circuit to a new circuit that we probably should have known, but didn’t learn until we actually showed up on site. Also, we underestimated the variety of firewalls people had in place we had to deal with.”

Once the higher broadband speeds are available to districts, it opens up the potential for all kinds of new activities, said Eric Saunders, ADE’s assistant commissioner for research and technology. Besides more devices, such as tablets and laptops for 1:1 programs, teachers need training and support, he said. “We partner with a group called Team Digital that goes out and helps schools with online learning,” he said.

The network will also enhance professional development and statewide meetings. Arkansas has a coding initiative, requiring districts to offer coding and computer science. “Many of those courses are done in a virtual setting,” Saunders said. “We have realized the importance of students having computer science skills, but one of the barriers has been having enough qualified teachers. We are trying to set up ways for teachers to become trained in that area, and most of the professional development courses are online.”

Saunders said he hears from teachers and administrators that the upgraded network provides an opportunity to give each student greater choices through online courses, which they didn’t have before. “Students can pursue their interests with concurrent classes so that they can get college credit in high school.”

Myers has been hearing positive responses from school districts that have switched over. “Folks that have transitioned from their old DIA connection to the new network have had amazing things to say about it,” he said. “It is so much faster than what they were used to having.”

David Raths contributing writer